Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice…

The “supercommittee” admitted defeat; it won’t have a blueprint for reducing the nation’s deficit (stories here, here and here).  Is this a bad thing?

Some have argued, no: the first direct result of getting no plan from this committee is that the law which authorized it will now automatically cut $1.2 trillion from defense and non-defense spending over ten years starting in 2013, and that may end up giving us more deficit reduction than we’d have gotten otherwise.  No way to know for sure, of course, but it makes sense.

I mean, there’s no reason to believe that the same members of Congress who thought nothing of threatening government default for political gain this past summer were likely to come to any agreement now, not when the party that controls the House (and virtually controls the Senate with the threat of filibuster) is still holding its breath threatening to turn blue rather than be responsible and discuss the best ways to increase revenue as part of the answer (along with spending cuts and overall economic growth) to getting the federal budget on a healthy path.  None at all.

To believe otherwise would mean, first of all, believing that the sheep people lined up behind Speakers Boehner and Limbaugh have any goal more important that the defeat of President Obama.  They don’t, unless it is the personal destruction of Obama, and anyone unlike themselves.  Second, it means they would have to have the backbone to say no to the no-tax extremists and the campaign contributors.

I read an interesting article making the point that we’re foolish to think that our elected representatives will do anything that makes sense for us, because they’re in place to serve their bosses: namely, the minority of the population who actually vote in the primaries, and the even smaller percentage of the people who pay the bills through campaign contributions both above and below board.  (By the way, read Michael Moran’s piece setting the stage for his blog The Reckoning.)

The other thing to watch out for right now, though, is the cowardly Congress finding a way to back out of the deal it made with itself!  No Congress can pass a law that would prevent a future Congress from unpassing that law; just because it set itself this deadline and mandated future budget cuts as a penalty for failing to meet that deadline can’t prevent the next Congress from overriding all or some part of the threatened budget reductions, and that’s entirely possible for a group that already can’t say no to anyone (which is a big part of what got our budget in this mess to begin with).

Give some thought to Moran’s suggestion: in times of crisis, what if we take control away from politicians and give it to people who know what they’re doing?

A real super-committee – a real committee not only empowered to take the steps necessary to right the American economy, but competent to do so – would include 12 serious thinkers. They might include policymakers like former Fed Chairmen Paul Volker or (the suitably contrite) Alan Greenspan, economists of left and right like Stanford’s John B. Taylor, Yale’s Robert Schiller, NYU-Stern’s Nouriel Roubini, plus a few representatives of labor, small business and capital – let’s say Robert Reich, Joseph Schneider of Lacrosse Footwear, and Warren Buffett, just for kicks. No investment bank chairman, please, and no one facing reelection.

Can you imagine this group failing to come up with a solution? Can you imagine any of them worrying more about the next election than the future of the world’s largest economy? Certainly, they would clash – perhaps over the same tax v. spending cut issues. The difference: they would understand better than any member of Congress that no solution is far worse than a less-than-perfect solution.

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Gang of Six comes to the table with a plan, and some hope

A plan, a plan!  We have a plan, we just aren’t telling you what it is, not just yet.

And just because you and I don’t know what’s in it doesn’t mean that this budget plan from the Group of Six might not be a solid foundation for building a way to get the nation’s budget out of the ditch, and maybe get support for a debt ceiling increase before the government defaults on its loans in two weeks.

Today, a bipartisan group (or Gang) of six senators that has been meeting privately for months looking for a way out of the federal budget quicksand briefed Senate colleagues on a plan to cut about $4 trillion dollars from the budget deficit over the next 10 years.  The plan is said to be similar to the one presented by the president’s deficit study commission, and calls for spending cuts and tax increases (yeah, I said it—tax increases).  A number of Republicans and Democrats came out of the meeting with positive things to say about this effort.

President Obama praised the plan, noting that it’s “consistent” with the approach he’s been pushing in recent negotiations.  Now, that may be all it takes to doom the plan in the eyes of Obama-haters, but there’s still hope.  This plan will be there waiting for both houses to pick up after the GOP’s “Cut, Cap and Balance” plan fails to win approval; it wouldn’t be ready to be implemented right away, but could show enough good faith for enough Republicans to do what has to be done right away—raise the debt ceiling by August 2 to prevent government default and all the consequences that will bring to the economy, and to you and me.

Just for good measure, on that proposal for a balanced budget amendment: Dahlia Lithwick and Doug Kendall make an interesting case that amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget, in the way that Tea Party members are proposing to do, would actually “crash headlong into the very constitutional principles the Tea Party purports to cherish” and that if successful could hamstring the nation’s ability to defend itself.  Here’s hoping they’re still capable of seeing the irony of this situation.

Beware of those peddling politics for dummies

The chattering classes say Republicans are in trouble because of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed changes to Medicare.  They say that because, across the land, there has not been a rousing call for its adoption by acclamation, and therefore we can ascertain that the proposers are on the outs with the American people.  In fact some people do object, and for a number of reasons, but I don’t know how much trouble the whole GOP is in over this issue, since I try not to make the sweeping generalization my first conclusion or give myself credit for being able to see the future or into the minds of others.

But I think that what’s happening right now on this subject is a good thing.  We need to talk about details if we’re going to find a way out of our federal budget mess.  No one has wanted to talk specifics because, well, talking about paying more and spending less is not fun.  But beyond that, few in power dare to address specifics for fear that the short attention span American voter and the heat-before-light American news media will fixate only on the fact that someone proposed something and rain down ridicule and ignominy upon them until the end of days (no, not until October 21, for much longer than that).  Any open discussion or real give and take on a serious issue becomes more and more unlikely as it becomes more and more clear that the discussion will be intentionally twisted into a negative campaign ad.

We have to talk specifics on this, but that doesn’t mean that we have to do everything that is proposed, or that every unadopted proposal is a failure.  Ryan’s plan may never become law, but it already served the purpose of getting us talking about details.  Now we need to keep talking, not recoil from the negative reaction to the first serious plan and never say anything ever again.

The budget crunches in this country are real and can’t be solved just with accounting tricks; it’s going to mean painful cuts in programs that people need as well as ones they want.  For example: here in Texas our state law requires a balanced budget and there’s only so much money available this time around—tens of billions of dollars less than the current budget.  Absent a multi-billion dollar windfall of biblical proportions, the only way out means someone’s ox gets gored…or likely in this case, everyone’s oxen.  As Patricia Kilday Hart made the point in a recent column, the discussion is about what gets defined as an “essential” government program.  In order not to reach into the state’s savings account this time, there are budget plans that make some changes:

It cuts state Child Protective Services “intake” offices so severely that officials predict 85,000 calls about abused children will not be answered.

It shortchanges school districts for the 80,000 new students expected to show up at the front doors of public schools next year.

It cuts Medicaid reimbursement rates to nursing homes so drastically that the industry predicts 75 percent of the nursing homes in Texas will shut their doors, leaving 60,000 elderly Texans without care and 47,000 employees without jobs.

The polls have been showing for a while that people want the budget fixed, they just don’t want the fix to hurt them.  Well, “they” are going to have to get over that or “we” will get nowhere…except closer to the edge as the wind picks up a little bit.

The more things change, the more they stay eerily the same

First of all, don’t believe most of what’s coming out of the mouths of the political pros today, either the candidates or the party officials and consultants, including the ones disguised as Fox News commentators.  The winners of yesterday’s elections are saying every result is due to people rejecting President Obama and big government, while the losers are trying to convince us that they’re not to blame; nothing is that simple.  But make no mistake: the Democrats were beaten up yesterday.  Why?

For starters, the party in power always loses seats in the midterm elections.  Plus, Americans are (generally) not ideological, they’re practical—they want the economy strong and unemployment down, and they are impatient so they voted for someone new.  They didn’t, by and large, vote for mouthy extremists with no realistic plan for solving problems.  It was the independent voters, who supported Democrats in 2008, who drove the results of this election.  And if this election showed the biggest party swing in some 70 years, maybe it was because we’re trying to recover from the worst economic crisis in some 70 years.

The irony?  Unemployment is unacceptably high, but the naysayers aren’t giving the administration any credit for what it did do that, arguably, saved the economy.  But those things didn’t bring back jobs fast enough, and that was all the excuse many needed.

Don’t put too much stock in this big change being permanent.  Just two years ago there was supreme confidence that the Republican Party had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, and that was less than a decade after the Democrats were routed and ostracized following the Clinton presidency, which came after a generation of Republican ascendancy while Democrats wandered in the desert.

Republicans now control the House and should be expected to make an effort to lead, rather than just get in the way as they’ve done the past two years.  Some wise Republicans have said as much today, that the people have given them a “second” chance (this presumes the world began with the election of Ronald Reagan).  Well, the thing Speaker of the House-presumptive John Boehner has touted is the Pledge to America, and I’ve read estimates that achieving that vague set of goals will add $700 billion to the debt.

So don’t be surprised if there’s not much change in Washington.  Promises to lower taxes are vacuous: government can’t afford to take a pay cut any more than you or me, not if it plans to keep programs people want, like Social Security, Medicare, and national defense.  Cutting anything else won’t have the kind of impact on long-term debt that will make a serious difference.  Besides, when it comes to a plan to help the economy recover and generate jobs, what’s your level of confidence that the party largely responsible for the circumstances that led to the economic crisis is the party that can make it all better?

Look for real changes at the state or local level, where enough small changes can add up to real power for Republicans.

One more thing: enough with all the balloon juice about “taking back” the government, unless you’re talking about taking it back from the deep-pocketed interests who’ve been controlling the people in office for years and years now.  On paper, the government is still and always has been in the hands of the people we citizens chose to look out for our interests, just as the Constitution envisioned.  On the ground…well, we all have to understand that the longer those people stay in government—like Boehner, just elected to his 11th two-year term?—the more they depend on the money that greases Washington’s wheels; it’s true for Democrats and Republicans, and they know it, too.

The older I’ve gotten the easier it’s become to keep these things in perspective: if you don’t like the results of this election, remember that there’ll be another one along soon enough.